In August of this year, the Friendswood Library hosted our first Ekphrastic Poetry Reading and Contest. Over thirty poets submitted around seventy poems for the juried reading and contest. Three Top Honor recipients were selected along with many Honorable Mentions. Vanessa Zimmer-Powell, along with David Cowen and Donna Pauley were awarded the Top Honors recognition. Vanessa’s new ekphrastic poetry collection, Woman Looks Into An Eye, had also just recently come out on dancing girl press & studio. It seemed like a perfect time to discuss her new collection and to find out more about her passion for ekphrastic poetry and her creative process. The email interview below was conducted during the month of October.
MR: I really enjoyed the poems in your new collection. Poems such as Girl Eating a Bird, Attempting the Impossible, and From the River are evocative and imaginatively distinct. I always hope to understand the process and meaning of a poet and their poems. These are things not easy to define and yet they are interesting and educational to other writers. Your ekphrastic poems achieve a wonderful harmony between description and creative explication. One seems to serve the other and both expand the sensual meaning. I began to wonder how much you drew upon your knowledge of the artist’s intent, or whether you approached these works with clean eyes, so to speak. The poem Morning after the Deluge, based on the William Turner painting of a similar name, is another favorite of mine from the chapbook. Your poem seems to take on a much more personal experience, yet uses some of the same themes as Turner, ideas of light and dark in color theory, and the rebirth of your poem maybe mirroring the idea of deluge and spiritual renewal. These are just some observations and could be off the mark. In thinking of these ideas could you expound on your approach to ekphrastic poetry in general or specific to these poems.
VZP: I always select paintings to write about that captivate me viscerally, and my poems are an exploration of that visceral response. I think the rawness of seeing something so amazing for the first time is very powerful. Often, I want to know more about the painter and/or the painting, and may research the subject if I feel it will help answer a question. It is interesting that you mentioned “Girl Eating a Bird,” “Attempting the Impossible,” and “From the River.” These three poems were all inspired by Magritte paintings. I am very curious about how Victorian women navigated their world. I find Magritte to be very sensitive in his expression of the Victorian female. My poem "From the River" was inspired by his painting, The Rape. I was impressed by his interpretation of a woman's psychological response to rape. I wanted to know more, did some research and discovered that his mother was raped, and eventually committed suicide. I did not do research for "Girl Eating a Bird." The poem came from, examining the painting--its' symbols, its pattern, exploring its message visually. Magritte uses symbolic metaphor, like a poet, and I enjoy examining his work like a detective. The image in the painting Young Girl Eating a Bird, like The Rape is shocking. It makes one stop and look, ask questions, think about what is happening and the metaphor. Why would a girl want to eat a live bird? The girl's white Victorian collar is also stained with the blood of the bird. Does the bird represent the freedom that she is hungry for but cannot have as a Victorian?
Girl Eating a Bird
after viewing Rene Magritte’s painting
She chews open cardinal,
blood and freedom.
She won’t stop
until it is well tasted,
until the white Victorian collar
and she can sit like a boy in a tree.
When writing an ekphrasis, I may also create a persona poem—putting myself in the place of the artist or the subject that the artist has painted. For example, “Attempting the Impossible,” another poem you mentioned, is a persona poem. In the painting, Magritte paints himself attempting to paint his wife. To capture his voice, I used patterns and symbols from other paintings of his that I had viewed at the Magritte Mystery of the Ordinary exhibit.
You are correct in that the poem “Morning After the Deluge,” for the William Turner painting with that same name took me to a more personal place. I lived in Galveston during the time of hurricane Ike and went through some dramatic personal changes after the storm. The image and title from this painting brought me to that place.
Morning After the Deluge
After William Turner’s painting, Light and Color (Goethe’s Theory)—The Morning after the Deluge—Moses Writing the Book of Genesis
We were muddied in color.
The lens looked like honey,
|William Turner, Light and Color|
a bit of your wine
nested at the edge.
The great god
or beast who rounded out our dough
churned at what was left,
splattered pollen on the glass.
I could not see us
in the mottled hue.
You chased your god, your black dog
in circles—I felt dizzy.
Even the white in the middle was full
of color, scrambled.
I sat in our rebirth,
unable to walk at first,
as we became individual combinations of light
MR: Your expression of his Girl Eating a Bird, both in the poem and the interview are so fantastic that I hesitate to learn any more about the painting. I would just as soon leave it at your poetic interpretation. Extending your metaphor of the bird representing freedom, consuming the bird symbolically gives her the freedom to climb like a boy, or fly up to join the other birds already in the tree, or even fly away as in a symbolic, total freedom. This sharp metaphor becomes a wonderful evocation of what ekphrastic poetry can achieve.
You mentioned your interest in the lives of Victorian women and the challenges they faced. When I go back and read your poems, thinking in terms of patterns and specific images, I become very aware of your use of water and drowning imagery: yellow nets that catch and filter memory: We must swim today/ without our bodies/ in this river/ where we have drowned: She is submerged in an underwater tube: My limp body will speak to you / from this river: Her bed is stretched across the river: She is my death, my love./ I repeat myself in her waters. There are others throughout this collection. Could you expound on this imagery or any possible connections they evoke, possibly to the same restrictions imposed during the Victorian era.
VZP: This chapbook is a small sampling of a larger ekphrastic manuscript that I have been editing for several years, therefore it has threads of different themes from the larger work. Water is a unifying symbol for both collections. Poet, Natalie Diaz says that we all have a lexicon derived from images that shape us. I think that "water" is a major lexicon for me. I grew up in Louisiana with a pond in my backyard, and Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico nearby. I am a student of water, its colors of rest and trauma, which is possibly what evoked this symbol in the art I selected, and the poems that emerged. The poems came first, and then I arranged them by how they talked to each other and what they were talking about. Monet is also obsessed with water, which is one reason I think I am drawn to his work, and use his work as a thread through my larger collection.
In reference to your question about women of the Victorian era, I am thinking of women over diagnosed with "hysteria," told to sit quietly in their room doing nothing, as the classically portrayed woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's, The Yellow Wallpaper or the painting of Alice James by John Singer Sargent which I write about in the larger collection. These women have lost a sense of self, a loss of purpose, which is their drowning.
In my chapbook, the images of drowning and water are not just for the Victorian women referenced in three of the poems, but are congruent with the chapbook's overarching theme of loss, whether it be loss of self like in "Seine" where Monet has lost himself to his obsession with painting the river, physical and emotional loss like the soldier in "Soldier's Bath,” the loss of place and self for the boat people trying to survive the Vietnam War in "Mosquito Net Photos," and the woman who is raped and commits suicide in "From the River." "Girl Eating a Bird" is placed as the final piece of this chapbook, as a piece of triumph, a lashing out against potential loss of self to a world that says young women should behave a certain way. She is my voice for the lost ones.
after viewing Claude Monet’s Seine River
paintings, Giverny and Port -Villez
drip lavender and lemon.
The banks of me, her shadows,
call me until hunger.
Each morning I return
re-learn blue, the shape of leaves,
the face of river.
She is my death, my love.
I repeat myself in her waters.
MR: Clearly you place high value on the use of symbol to create your poems, as do other poets to varying degrees. Symbolism is vital to the craft of poetry and allows a writer to reflect truths about life and existence. If one is more interested in making a quick appeal about topical issues, I don’t know that poetry, in its truest sense, is the best medium for this. I would not draw a line in the sand because I know many wonderful poets who write both universal and topical themes, and sometimes in the same poem. I do believe that poetry is stronger when craft and poetic history is valued at least equal to the timeliness of the message. Is this a theme that you would feel comfortable to elaborate on in relation to your poetry? How concerned are you in getting across a message in your poetry? Or do you place more value on reflecting larger truths, either as they relate to you or the world in which we find ourselves.
VZP: This is an interesting question. I'm not sure that I can answer it properly because when I set out to write a poem, I'm not really thinking in those terms. I'll take a stab at this. When I think of universal themes, I think of "love," "death," "war," for example. When I think about topical themes, I think of Donald Trump, of course--he is quite the topic, and about things like the Civil War. One of my better poems is a Civil War poem that's in a history journal, The Copperfield Review. It's called "Dinner at Shiloh." In my mind, what makes this a good poem, is the image that drives the poem. I was watching the Ken Burns Civil War series and saw cherry blossoms falling on pigs who were feasting on the corpses of soldiers. I had to write about that image. I did not try to convince the reader weather the Civil War was good or bad. I focused on the images, let them speak. Yes, craft is certainly important. I think it elevates a poem from a “telling” to a transportive experience. I think that if I treat a topical poem the way I treat a universally themed poem, then I can create a powerful poem. What makes a topically themed poem less interesting is when the topic perhaps overshadows the heart of the poem. For example, if I had focused on trying to explain what the Civil War meant to me, and not the pigs, the poem would have been less interesting.
As with the poem "Dinner at Shiloh," each poem in the chapbook is driven by an image that affected me. The symbols in my poetry arrive after the image. I do not just describe the image, or my poem would be unnecessary. "From the River" is a persona poem. The painting I write about is Magritte's interpretation of a rape victim. I give a voice to the rape victim who I assume to be his mother who also committed suicide. The voice is the voice of the dead body in the river. I use elements of the painting to convey that voice.
Many of my poems do, I think, touch upon universal themes. In "Poem for Sacrificed Girls" I want people to feel the horror of the girls' death, rather than tell you all about the death. In Shadow Sonnet, I want the reader to feel the frottages, the interconnectedness of one another, how the shadow of each of us lingers upon the other.
I do however think, as mentioned before, that we all have certain images that drive our lexicon, that linger and hover inside us. I think that each poet is haunted by themes and concepts that we chew upon, try to articulate. For the chapbook, when I saw a particular piece of art that grabbed me, it was a part of that chewing, that learning. I am unraveling the message, rather than sending the message, perhaps. Like a viewer looking at art, I would like the reader to have an emotional response to my poetry, to see something in a different way, or just to enjoy the language of my brush.
MR: I love how you describe your poetry as an unraveling, maybe of universal mysteries, or maybe a more personal mystery, as you say, “images…that linger and hover inside us”.
This unraveling reminds me that a poet, or artist in general, is not simply the tools they use to make their art; language, rhyme & rhythm. A poet is always filtering experience through a unique lense. A poet is always a poet, learning, as you say, ways to express these images and thoughts more effectively.
Is it possible to elaborate on how this unique learning informs other aspects of your life? Do you find that the process of creating poetry has influenced ways in which you interact with others and the world? Are there other forms of art, as with your ekphrastic poetry, that also inspires you as a poet? Or would you like to discuss other poets or artists that are an inspiration to your work?
VZP: I write poetry to help remember what I see—it’s a memory capsule. I remember a painting vividly if I write about the painting. Sometimes I feel like a detective, as a poet. As I want to gain a deeper understanding about something I see, I often start doing research. For example, while doing one of the Monet poems, I found a passage on the internet from a book called, "Mad Enchantment" which is the story of Monet's water lily masterpieces, and ultimately his death. I was intrigued by the passage and ended up ordering and reading the entire book.
I love the way a poem affects my world. I feel an excitement, an altered sense of consciousness when I want to capture the shape of something, when I see it for the first time, a new way. I also love how words feel in my mouth, how the shape of a word pours onto the page. I enjoy photography, and feel a similar experience while seeing an image I want to capture in a photograph. The photography and poetry often, but not always feed one another. Many times I take a photograph, and then write about what I've seen.
How has poetry influenced the way I interact with others and the world? I know that as a poet, I have a quiet introspective side. I do like time to myself, and time to write. Fortunately, I have a husband who appreciates that and gives me space. My poetry lens also allows me to enjoy the world and others in the world more thoroughly. I am constantly struck by the beauty I see around me--even in a world where there is so much despair and tragedy. This may sound a little hokey, but it’s true. I am in love with the oranges on my orange tree, the golden hour--looking at the sunset through the arches of my trees, the way sun highlights my husband's face in the morning. I could go on and on. Apparently, I'm affected by light and shadow, and how it dances upon the surfaces around me.
Houston is a fantastic place to be as a writer. I have seen and heard so many good poets, just by living here——I could not possibly name all of them. I will mention the poets in my every-day life. I belong to a wonderful poetry critique group--"Poets in the Loop." It was started by Mary Wemple, and includes Winston Derden, Kelly Ann Ellis, Carrie Kornacki, John Milkereit, Elina Petrova, Varsha Shah, Chuck Wemple, and Dom Zuccone. I know that I am a better poet because of them. I also read with the writers of Archway Gallery and have developed a friendship with Loueva Smith, who has influenced my writing. I can't forget about our poet laureates. I am always in awe of Robin Davidson's work and how generous she is with the poetry community. I also have to mention past Texas poet laureate, Karla Morton. That woman just shines as a poet. She also has a great big poet heart, and is so encouraging to emerging poets. I think I could go on and on in this area as well. Reading poetry in general, is an inspiration.
MR: In talking about the creative process of poetry you write, I also love how words feel in my mouth, how the shape of a word pours onto the page. This reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a poet friend regarding the difference between writing poems for the page versus giving a poetry reading. How different of a process is this, and, as a poetry reader, do you find that reading publicly effects your writing? Are you more aware of the poem as a performance, so to speak, as you are writing it? Or maybe this makes no difference at all. Maybe it takes more courage to reveal yourself in person than as a more anonymous person on the page?
VZP: I feel that poetry is multidimensional, and it is meant to be heard. As I am writing, I am concerned not only about the poem's architecture on the page, but also about how the poem sounds, and read it out-loud many times in the editing process to make sure that its sound is helping to convey meaning. When I do a poetry reading, and see/feel how the audience responds and hear the poem out loud in a different space, it is often a testing ground to see if the poem is working. I don't necessarily think of my poems as performances. I feel like the person reading the poem brings energy to the poem and creates the performance. If a poem is strong on the page, one who is good at performing should be able to perform it well, in general, off the page. Having said that, when I do a poetry reading, I do select poems that I think can hold the audience's attention. I am a speech and language pathologist, so I do think about the brain, attention, and auditory processing, when giving a reading. I also think about who is in the audience. Rhyme and repetition help the brain with memory, which is why so many performance oriented poets and rappers use these techniques. I write mostly in free verse and do not often use rhyme, therefore I know that I cannot usually get away with doing a long poem at a poetry reading. On the other hand, if the poem is really short, people don't have time to process the poem. Sometimes I'll read a poem like "Girl Eating a Bird" or "From the River" twice, since they are so short. When giving a reading, I usually select poems that are around 30-40 lines, give or take, and rely on other devices in the poem for emphasis, like line breaks, stanza breaks etc. The white space in between the lines really makes a poem shine. I notice when I slow down, allow for the white space, and pause, the audience has time to enjoy my words. When I read quickly, and ignore the poetic devices that I have built into the page, it does my poem a disservice. To address the long poem that doesn't use rhyme or repetition--I still think it is meant to be heard, but one can often attend better if it is heard and read at the same time, by one reader who can savor its' words.
However, several years ago I heard Andrew Motion, the former British Poet Laureate read a very long poem. I was completely entranced and was raptly attentive to the whole poem. I have not seen the poem on the page, and would have to see how it was crafted. As I recall, it was prose, which helps, because one can follow a story line. Now that I think of it, I have heard several long prose poems read really well. Perhaps Andrew Motion just reads his poems very well, and most of us poets who are not "performance poets" need to do more of that?
MR: Before I ask this final question, I just wanted to thank you for sharing in this interview process. I have enjoyed this opportunity to learn more about your poems and ideas regarding the creative writing process.
You stated that poetry is multidimensional, and the title poem of your new collection, Woman Looks Into An Eye, is certainly a prime example of the dimensionality of poetry. This poem began life as a collage. Would you share with us the story and process of how this collage came to be, and then how the poem became an extension of the original concept? Or anything regarding the interplay of ideas and symbolism between the two works?
Woman Looks Into an Eye
She, bird child
folded in hand of an eye
inside an eye,
her favorite decibel is cracked.
She reads books in the library
of her room and waits
for black star,
for a message from history.
Here she floats like an atom,
collects her collisions.
She loses innocence
to a red lipped Shakti,
and drinks the sound of her feathers.
VZP: Matt, I have enjoyed the process as well. Thanks so much, for your time and attention to my chapbook. It has been a most interesting journey reflecting upon my own work. In response to your question, the collages came from an experience at the Jung Center. They were hosting an open house with multiple unguided activities, one of which was collage. There were rows of tables with images from many different magazines and materials. I did not have a plan or a theme for each collage. I allowed it to be a project of the subconscious, selected photos that grabbed me, and then arranged the photos that seemed to be speaking to one another. In the collage copy that I sent you, the little girl image was speaking to me. She reminded me of the little girl me. All of the other photographs fell into place around her. I approached it similarly to how I craft some of my poems. I find an element that interests me, and then figure out how that interplays with other images and themes that are somehow haunting the subconscious. After I created the collages, I thought it would be interesting to take the process further, and create some poems from the collages. I allowed the images in the collages to guide my poems. I think that because the "Woman Looks into an Eye" poem was a product of a collage of the subconscious, the girl and the eyes are symbols of looking into one's self. Some of the other images, I think, relate to my curiosity and enjoyment of the world. I am an explorer. I like to look at things that are cracked, different. I want to examine the atypical, the extraordinary, the black star, the eclipse. I am the sum of my history--everything I see, read, experience, along with all of the collisions.